It's interesting that he cites Plato and ancient Chinese systems of rationalism, but not Aristotle's politics. I would have thought that to be the right place for a secular political theory to root itself: not on utilitarianism, but on eudaimonia."When evaluating what set of policies results in the greatest good for the greatest number, one cannot simply imagine individuals as islands unto themselves."That model is secular, all right: it is the model of utilitarianism. I would hope secularism -- especially if it means to be conservative -- is not wedded to that incoherent tradition of political philosophy! He does something nice with it (although curiously omitting another social group to which individuals belong -- i.e., religious groups), but the assumption that we should be making calculations of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' at all needs defending, not assuming. Whether you are rationalist or empiricist about it, that principle isn't a very good one. We simply have no way of knowing what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, neither rationally nor empirically, because we cannot know the truth of counterfactuals. We know what we did, and what happened, and that's all. Everything else is guesswork.
The point he was making about Plato and the Chinese systems was - this is what you get when you take a set of principles, easily comprehensible to the mind of one man, and let the implications run free. The "Utopian" systems - including More's Utopia itself, I suppose - are the best examples of it. (But then, there are countless examples throughout history - Bastiat's The Law, now under my Favorites links, includes a sizable French sampling; though I believe it leaves out Fourier's Phalansteres, an especially wild version.) Plato's Republic is associated in the public imagination with the notion of "Philosopher-Kings," and readily makes the point to people who haven't read Plato or Aristotle. And given the space limitations of articles like this, I think he did well to choose examples that required as little digression as possible. A very long time ago I read part of Aristotle's Politics, including the section on his notion of an ideal state. My old memory says this was more "conservative" in the sense of the article...that it built on the kind of institutions Aristotle knew rather than throwing down the whole edifice and building from scratch; but you know it better and could give a more accurate picture I am sure.
Whether you are rationalist or empiricist about it, that principle isn't a very good one. We simply have no way of knowing what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, neither rationally nor empirically...Competing systems have similar problems, though. "Accomplishing the will of God on earth" was the explicit purpose of the Visigoth code; but it's hubris to imagine we know that. "The greatest good for the best men" - Ambrose Bierce's variant - leaves the problem of determining both "the greatest good" and "the best men"...No doubt there are better models, but a digression on that would've made a much longer article and distracted from the main point of this one, which was to show its audience (seculars who think that secularism implies leftism; and maybe religious people who think the same thing) a viewpoint that is both secular and conservative.
Well, what makes the Politics interesting is that it's kind of a taxonomy of kinds of states and the sorts of problems they encounter. He divides states into classes based on how many people have formal political power: one, a few, or many. Then he expresses the healthy and the corrupt forms of each of these kinds of states, so that you end up with six total forms.What he ends up saying is that the greatest good is possible from a healthy state led by a single ruler ("monarchy"), but the greatest harm is done by the corrupt form of this same kind of state ("tyranny"). The good is weakened in the second type, but so is the harm ("aristocracy" and "oligarchy") and still more in the third type ("constitutionalism" and "democracy," with democracy being the corrupt mode of the majority voting themselves extracted benefits from the minority).In that sense it's almost an ideal starting point for someone who sees himself in the empirical tradition. It's all about classification of experiments that have been tried before, and an attempt to draw lessons about each form's benefits and drawbacks -- as well as the special dangers that afflict each form.For centuries it was one of Aristotle's most obscure works, because coincidentally Alexander the Great settled the question of what kind of government was going to be the model. Whereas new forms of government were being tried fairly often in the City States period, after Alexander it was tyranny all the time. For that reason few bothered to translate the Politics -- for example, it didn't make the cut for translation into Arabic, which meant that Ibn Rushd (Averroes) didn't have it, and had to make do with Plato when looking for Greek political thought to inform his role as an Islamic law judge.
Competing systems have similar problems, though.That's why I suggested a eudaimonia model. There's some rational content to it -- it is defined as employing your vital powers in the pursuit of excellence -- so that you have a sense of what you are trying to achieve. However, while it is in that sense 'the same for everyone,' it also admits of substantial individual variation. A system that tries to plan for everyone, instead of licensing maximal freedom in pursuit of excellence, will fail for the same reason that central planning economies fail compared to market economies. Local information about what 'excellence' entails, and which vital powers are best employed, is better and more quickly updated than the information available to distant planners.
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